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Release date: 12/28/2004.
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"We've never talked about an incredibly beautiful winter festival that's both ancient and modern, racially specific and universal, and, to my mind, all about the American dream in the best sense of the term...."

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Souping Up a Kwanzaa Celebration

(e-SoupSong 55: December 1, 2004)

Ever have a couple of tough months? That would be me. So even though I have an absolutely whopping, showstopping story on Native American soups that is tantalizingly close to being finalized...not tonight.

Instead I'm going to give you a tiny peek at a section of you-know-what: that hardcopy book of mine that I've been shamelessly promoting for months now. 'Tis the holiday season, after all, and we've never talked about an incredibly beautiful winter festival that's both ancient and modern, racially specific and universal, and, to my mind, all about the American dream in the best sense of the term.

Kwanzaa. It's chapter 20 in my Exaltation of Soups, featuring five mouthwatering African soups; poems by James Whitfield, Frances Harper, Langston Hughes, and Nikki Giovanni; African soup proverbs, and a storylet by Chinua Achebe. The Zimbabwean soup that I'm including at the end is so fabulous that words fail me. It's fragrant, chunky, beautiful to behold, and fired by the heat of the African sun. You're gonna love it.

Okay, here goes:

ONCE UPON A TIME, there was no Kwanzaa. And not that long ago, either. Like so many good things, it started with a dream.

Time: 1966
Place: California
Dreamer: Dr. Maulana Karenga, chairman of Cal State's black studies program
Dream: "How on earth," Professor Karenga asked himself, "can a way be found to unite African Americans in a powerful way when they come from so many different geographic locations and cultures, embrace different religions, and celebrate different holidays in different ways?"

Answer: Dr. Karenga reached into the heart of humanity to bring forth Kwanzaa--all the way back to the earliest rhythms of civilization, when all peoples set their clocks to nature’s cycles. You're looking for a common denominator, here it is: From earliest times, and in every clime, mankind learned to treasure seeds, plant them in the spring, tend and nurture them, reap the fruits, store them up for the winter, and, with a huge sigh of relief, ritually give thanks for food in the larder in a ceremonial fete.

A.K.A. Kwanzaa, or "first fruits of the harvest" in the East African dialect Kiswahili. True, there's no festival by that exact name anywhere in the world, but celebrants of harvest festivals across the African continent would be very comfortable with this festival's concept and ceremonies.

In the U.S--and now, actually, in African communities across the world--Kwanzaa is celebrated each year from December 26 through January 1. It's a 7-day fete of feasting and gift giving with a close focus on family and community values, seven of them--one for each day of celebration.

The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa:
1. Umoja, or unity.
2. Kujichagulia, or self determination.
3. Ujima, or working together for the happiness of all.
4. Ujamaa, or working together for the prosperity of all.
5. Nia, or working together for the glory of all.
6. Kuumba, or creating beauty in the world.
7. Imani, or faith in the future of our community.


On the first day of Kwanzaa, families put the kinara, or 7-branched wooden candleholder, in an honored spot. Seven candles--mishumaa saba--are placed in it: 3 red candles on the left, in memory of the blood shed by so many over so many years; 3 green candles on the right, in hopes for the future; and one black candle in the center, symbolizing unity and pride. Each of the seven nights, families come together to light one of the candles and talk about what it means to them in very personal terms...then they carry the conversation into the dining room and start the feast. Start it with what? What better than a traditional African soup made from the fruits of the harvest?


Zimbabwean spicy vegetable and peanut stew
(Huku ne dovi)
Serves 6-8

This ceremonial dish for special occasions in Zimbabwe villages is a "must eat" for anyone who loves good food. It's rich and sweet, thick and succulent--not to mention piquant--with an unusual and beautiful combination of vegetables. Chicken is expensive in Zimbabwe and only brought out for feasts--which is to say that vegetarians would not be at all violating the authenticity of the dish by cutting out the chicken and substituting vegetable stock for the chicken stock. But by all means serve with sadza, or fried cornmeal mush. It's traditional to eat this stew with delicate fingertips right out of the pot (or from a big serving dish)--a truly wonderful communal meal to serve on one of the nights of Kwanzaa.

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
  • 1 cup creamy peanut butter (more traditionally, finely crushed peanuts)
  • 2 cups tomatoes, peeled and cut in pieces, juice reserved (canned are fine)
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper flakes (or less--this is pretty spicy)
  • 2 cups cabbage, finely chopped
  • 3 sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped
  • 4 carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 2 turnips, peeled and chopped
  • 12 whole okra, fresh or frozen, with stems trimmed
  • 2-3 cups cooked chicken, cut into big chunks
In a large soup pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat and fry the onions until soft, about 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and stir in 1 cup of the stock. Whisk in the peanut butter, then stir in the rest of the stock, the tomatoes with their juice, salt and pepper to taste, and the hot pepper. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to low, cover, and let simmer for 30 minutes. Stir in the cabbage, sweet potatoes, carrots, and turnips, bring back to a high boil, then reduce heat to low again, cover, and cook for 20 more minutes. Finally, stir in the okra and chicken chunks, cover, and let stew over low heat for 30 minutes.

To serve, pour the stew into a large serving dish, gather your guests around a table, and invite them to dig in with their fingers. Or ladle the soup out into individual soup bowls and serve with cornbread or the traditional fried cornmeal mush.

Wishing you determination, happiness, prosperity, glory, beauty, faith, and togetherness over the holidays...not to mention good eating throughout this holiday season,

All best, Pat Solley

NEXT MONTH: Ringing in the New Year with...Soup